STUDENT INTEREST IS COMPLEX AND VARIED
For students of all ages, interest in piano (or anything, really) comes from within, from the desire to please her parents and teachers, and from the habit of doing. Even the most eager student will lose interest if their practice habits don’t result in the mastery of their pieces: frustration will follow, or distractions and the slow pace of her successes will gradually chip away at her interest. A student’s interest in lessons will naturally ebb and flow but can be sustained over time in part by an effective routine. Exceptional talent may be necessary to attain a career as a concert artist, but talent plays a secondary role—at best—in determining which students will achieve competence at the piano.
SO HOW LONG SHOULD IT TAKE?
Students of all ages are expected to practice 6 days a week without significant exception. Quality matters when it comes to practice. But quantity also matters. It’s impossible to imagine any student making substantial month-over-month progress while putting in less than three hours per week. Of course, youngest beginners may gradually work up to this. And advanced students will need to spend more time. Specific practice goals are discussed with each student on an individual basis and are occasionally reviewed and adjusted.
Establish a practice environment free of distractions such as television and rambunctious siblings. Prevent interruptions and keep your phone in another room. If you use your phone as a metronome or recorder, keep it in airplane mode!
The life of a child is one of routines: brushing teeth, eating breakfast, going to school. Music study must be as much a part of the daily routine as any other activity. Of course, sometimes, you’ll have to put it off. But if you do this too often, you’re teaching your child that piano is the first thing to be cut on a busy day…and you may also lose the essential routine that students need to experience real success.
MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH YOUSELF AND KEEP IT FAITHFULLY
Schedule your practice time at the same time each day, in the morning, if possible. If this is not practical, and certainly as kids get older, it’s necessary to come up with a weekly schedule. Involve the student in creating the schedule, perhaps even turn it into an art project. But do schedule it—in most cases, if a specific time isn’t reserved for the appointment, practicing will become inconsistent. Other priorities and/or distractions will inevitably conspire to keep the student from finding the necessary time.
ROUTINE MINIMIZES CONFLICT
Parents have tremendous power to shape their children’s expectations. If practicing becomes a normal part of every day’s routine, conflicts are much less likely to occur. For students who are not starting from scratch, invent a reason to “renew” a regular and effective routine: because we’ve switched teachers; because it’s a new school year; because there is a recital on the horizon; etc.
YES, YOU’LL HAVE TO REMIND
Support your child by helping them to keep their practice appointment faithfully! You don’t want to be fighting about practice time every day—but even the most talented students need to be reminded.
MAKE UP MISSED TIME
Everyone needs a day off; but if a student misses two days of practice in a week, the missed time should be made up by completing two sessions (or less preferably, one longer session) on one of the other days.
BREAK YOUR PRACTICE INTO SHORT SESSIONS
Young beginners (under age 9) will do much better with two or three short (10 to 20 minutes) sessions of practice per day. You can work your way down to longer sessions over a period of months or years.
SUPERVISED PRACTICE IS OFTEN ESSENTIAL
Supervised practice can be very helpful for students of all ages and is essential for younger students. For most young beginners under age 9, unsupervised practice is the same as no practice at all. When supervising practice, give as much guidance that the student will tolerate, but not more. Some students will accept a great amount of detailed guidance and instruction from their parents, which is wonderful. Others will not. It’s best not to allow supervised practice to turn into a difficult argument about the right way to play or practice a piece. If the student insists on practicing a piece incorrectly all week, they’ll find out soon enough at their lesson what needs to be changed. Be generous with praise and slow to criticize. But don’t give false praise; prioritize the rewarding of honest effort over accomplishment.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AN EXPERT TO HELP YOUR CHILD
Most young students, even those with exceptional talent, lack the study skills needed to practice effectively. They need help sitting down and playing their assigned pieces and/or practice steps. They need help thinking of what questions to ask as they are just beginning to develop problem-solving skills. Help with issues of musical content may not be necessary. Absent parent supervision, students will play recordings of themselves, they’ll watch TV from the bench, they’ll play songs from last semester but not the current assignment sheet, and so on. Even students who seem bright, interested, and motivated will do these things! They need your help to stay on task and to develop the study skills that will allow them to enjoy the benefits of musical training.
If assistance beyond your passive attention is required, get out the student’s assignment book and help the student complete any specific steps that are written down (either in the assignment book or directly on the music). If no specific steps are written down by your teacher, you might start by having the student play a piece or section a few times. Then, help the child ask questions: what part needs work? What should we practice next? Should we do hands separately or together? And so on. Some students need this level of supervision every day. Sometimes, one or two days a week is sufficient—it will give parents an idea of what students are doing on the other days, and it may prepare the student to practice in a similar manner absent such direct supervision. Many, perhaps most, young students don’t realize (often for years) that effective practice at its core means completing multiple correct repetition—and that to do this requires asking thoughtful questions about what works and what doesn’t. The parent helps the student to accomplish this until the student has the skills to do so on his or her own.
Most parents feel more comfortable working with students at home when they are able to actively observe the student’s lesson. You are always welcome and encouraged to observe. It is not a coincidence that young students whose parents actively observe lessons every week rarely have serious practice problems at home.
I once noticed that a very eager, very young student came to her lesson chewing gum every week. After a couple months of this, I asked her about it. She told me that if she practices every day, her mom gives her a pack of gum before her lesson. Maybe after the lesson would be better timing! But anyway, you can worry about internal motivation later—this little girl grew up to be one of the more advanced and long-lasting students of my career.
The “best” piano teachers, as recognized by their students’ achievement, are in nearly all cases the most selective teachers. If you require your students to practice 90 minutes per day, and you’re not afraid to drop students who don’t keep up, you’re going to have some highly skilled students! The teacher’s role in creating an environment in which the “regular” student is motivated to practice is vitally important…but also surprisingly limited. Your teacher wants to contribute to your child’s motivation in a positive way but the path isn’t the same for every child. We are always available to talk through your specific case to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the student engaged.
WEEKLY LESSON EVALUATION
Students may receive a “weekly lesson evaluation” on their assignment sheet, based mostly on the teacher’s perception of their preparation. For some students, this can be an important motivating factor in encouraging them to practice. Other students are happy to receive poor evaluations week after week! In either case, this can be a communication tool.
CHOOSE TO PARTICIPATE IN GROUP CLASSES AND PERFORMANCES
Students in group classes often have an easier time meeting practice obligations because there’s a strong incentive to perform well in front of their peers in the group. Performance opportunities are also important in helping to motivate students. When a student knows she has to prepare a piece for a class, recital, or festival, it may get a different level of attention from a “regular” lesson piece.
OUR STUDIO’S MISSION: NOT SIMPLY EXPOSURE BUT KNOWLEDGE, ACHIEVEMENT, AND LASTING SKILLS
Consistent practice is, by far, the most important factor in achieving these goals. Anyone can enjoy music and anyone who loves music can give your child exposure to musical concepts. But only through a productive collaboration between teacher, student, and parent will a child one day achieve a level of mastery that allows them to play the piano, with competence and confidence, throughout their whole lifetime. Good luck!